Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Third Sunday in Lent, Series B
Listen to the sermon here.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Near the palatine hill in Rome, there is this remarkable piece of graffiti from the third century, scrawled into the wall of the dormitory of imperial pageboys. The graffiti depicts a Christian boy being mocked for worshipping a crucified man with a donkey’s head. The boy, standing in front of the cross, raises his hand in adoration of this donkey God. Scrawled below the picture are the words: “Alexemenos worships his God.” This graffiti, as you might suspect, is not a compliment. In ancient Rome, the donkey was reviled for its stupidity and stubbornness. It became the primary metaphor for describing people’s foolishness. Christians in ancient Rome were slandered as worshipping foolishness. And little has changed since then. In North America, Christianity is not incredibly popular. Its common for News outlets, Hollywood, and virtually all types of media to characterise Christians either as superstitious buffoons to be mocked, or narrow-minded bigots to be denounced. Today, the Apostle Paul reminds us that this is the way it has always been.
Not What We Want to Hear
What is the reason for this mockery and disdain? Paul tells us clearly: it is the Word of the Cross. It is what Christians preach about that’s the issue. “We proclaim a crucified messiah,” Paul says. A crucified messiah?! That’s not what we want to hear. That’s not a message geared to win friends or influence people. The cross was a terrible marketing tool in the first century, and it’s just as terrible in the twenty-first century.
To the Roman world, a cross is a symbol of failure, disgrace, and torture. It is the ultimate affront to human dignity. Surely the only proper response to seeing a cross is to turn away in horror. It’s not proper to talk about such things in polite company.
Here comes Paul into a pagan city that prided itself on its intellectual and cultural life. He stood up to speak about Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified by the Romans but raised from the dead by God, and who was now the Lord of the world, calling people to repentance and faith. The Christian good news is all about God dying on a garbage-heap at the wrong end of the Empire. This was, and is, the craziest message anybody could imagine. This wasn’t a smart new philosophy; it was downright silly. It wasn’t an appeal to high culture. It was news of an executed criminal who died in disgrace.
And the Jewish people had their own difficulties. A Messiah on a cross? This is a contradiction in terms. The whole idea was scandalous! No Jew of the time was expecting a Messiah who would be executed by Rome; a Messiah ought to be defeating the pagans, not being killed by them! How could the all-conquering Messiah, he who is to come, end his days hanging on a tree? To the Jews, this simply proves he cannot be the Messiah.
“Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.” What do North Americans demand? What do they seek? North Americans demand tools for self-improvement. North Americans seek entertainment. North Americans seek bright shiny things to hold their attention. North Americans demand affirmation of their authentic self-expressions! All these things are geared towards achieving our goal of a happier life now. And so that’s what their prophets give them. Not a crucified messiah, not the word of the cross, but those other things.
A crucified messiah is not what we want to hear. The idea that the bloody death of a crucified messiah was a vicarious atonement for the sins of the whole world is seen as barbaric. But it’s more than that. The exclusivity of the cross offends our sense of inclusivity and tolerance. It proclaims that we are all sinners. We cannot live however we want. Not all of our desires and feelings are good. When a crucified messiah calls for everyone everywhere to repent of sin, that is seen as arrogant and judgmental. It goes against our grain to have to admit that we need the Son of God dying on a cross to put us right with God. We don’t think we’re that bad that we need such a bloody solution. A crucified messiah shows us that there is only one Truth, only one Way, and that true and solitary way is through faith in a crucified messiah.
The Corinthians had been tempted to abandon the message of the cross. They had absorbed and adopted the reigning storyline of the surrounding culture. And we are not immune from that. We can get caught up by intricate ideologies or fantastic philosophies. We are bombarded with alternatives to Christianity and the temptation is to swallow the blue pill and give in to the culture’s story. This doesn’t have to happen all at once. It can be a gradual, slow fade where the message of the Cross can begin to look like a silly, oppressive myth. We can dress our self-constructed idolatry in Christian garb. We can attempt to relate to God in our own way, a way that matches our culture, instead of relating to God on his terms at the cross. But those who choose their own way, who reject the proclamation of the crucified messiah are rejecting their own salvation.
Exactly What We Need to Hear
This proclamation about a crucified messiah is exactly what we need to hear. This message about the crucified messiah is God’s power to save you, to give you life in the age to come. The word of the cross, the gospel, is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe, Jews, Greeks, and even us Canadians. Jesus was willing to die in complete humiliation for the love of others — even for you. God in his wisdom deliberately chose the most scandalous means possible to bring about the world’s salvation.
Humanity does not expect God to come down and die as a victim. Humanity expects God to save with fanfare, pageantry, and power. Yet, God rescues you through a crucified messiah; a man who died without fanfare, in weakness, insignificance and shame. Humanity expects wisdom, it gets the folly of a crucified messiah. We do not proclaim, the worker of miracles messiah, to please the Jews. We do not proclaim the teacher of divine wisdom messiah, to please the Greeks. The messiah was both; but those do not save you. We proclaim a crucified messiah. We declare to all the world that we are saved by His death upon the Cross. Despite our sensibilities and preferences, the cross must occupy the chief place in our minds and hearts. Nothing but the humiliated, suffering, bleeding, dying Jesus can serve as the basis for our salvation.
Finally there is hope for you to hold on to, hope that will not disappoint. And you’ll find this isn’t just about going to heaven when you die. The announcement of the crucified messiah will assure you that, in spite of everything else that appears to the contrary, God does indeed love you and plans to restore creation, one sinner, one community at a time. When this is proclaimed, you’ll discover that things change. Sins are forgiven. Lives change. Human hearts change. Situations change. Amends are made. Wrongs are righted. New communities come into being. Justice reigns and oppression ceases.
Paul admitted that the Jews were looking for miracles and the Greeks had a hankering for great rhetoric and wisdom and all the Paul had was a crucified Messiah named Jesus, which the Jews tripped over and the Greeks thought was silly. But, as unpalatable as it sounds, we proclaim the power of weakness, the wisdom of folly, the glory of disaster. Lift up your eyes to the tree and see! In the horror of his death and abandonment, there is God! He is there for you. He thought you were worth that – worth the agony, worth the blood and sweat, worth the dying. He values you that much. Dear Christian family, let us lift high the cross and the love of Christ proclaim till all the world adore His sacred name!
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.